Throughout history, trade has been accompanied by what linguists call Wanderwörter – words borrowed from one language to another across vast distances, often along trade routes.
By the early eighteenth century, the Scots Gaelic “uisge-beatha” (a translation of the Latin “aqua vitae”, “water of life”) was anglicized and shortened to whisky (in Scotland) or whiskey (in Ireland). In Mandarin, the characters used to approximate the pronunciation – “wei”, “shi”, and “ji” – can be translated as “power”, “scholar”, and avoid at all costs.
After Spanish conquistadors brought the fruit to Europe in the sixteenth century, derivations on the “Nahuatl tomatl” spread throughout much of the world. Italians, however, dubbed it “pomodoro”, “golden apple,” a term they lent to Russian and Uighur.
The Andean plant known as “kuka” by the Quechua was introduced across Europe by the Spanish, who called it “coca”. In 1886, American pharmacist John Pemberton used the word in the name of his new beverage, Coca-Cola; the abbreviation “Coke” was trademarked in 1945.
Variations on the Arabic “al-qutn” spread across North Africa and the Mediterranean with the “Umayyads” in the eighth century. A second derivation, from the Persian “pembe”, spread to Anatolia as well as down the eastern coast of Africa.
Tea traveled along two separate routes from China to Europe in the seventeenth century: overland from Mandarin-speaking northern China, where it was known as “cha”; and by sea from Southern Min-speaking southeast China, where it was known as “te”.
The world for ivory in many European languages derives from the Egyptian word “abu”, dating to the second millennium BC. The Spanish and Portuguese words, however, come from the Arabic “nab al-fil”, “elephant’s tooth”.